The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: From the Reading Room

Local Researcher Uses MHS to Populate Wikipedia Pages

A local independent researcher recently made her way to the MHS to conduct research on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Boston-area libraries. She reports that while a substantial amount of research for her project can be completed online, thanks to mass scanning projects like GoogleBooks, the Society holds a number of early library circulars and catalogs that are unique and which she is unable to locate in digitized format.

Two examples of the types of documents she has found useful in her research are a small notice printed in 1818 for the Charlestown Social Library, and a catalogue of books belonging to the subscribers of the library of Milton and Dorchester (1790). The Catalogue of Books includes some 95 titles including a handful of works still familiar to readers today: John Milton’s Paradise Lost, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith.

Subscription libraries were “Netflix for an era of readers,” according to the historian Robert E. Sullivan [1]. An early type of lending library, they were privately funded and one paid a fee in order to join and have access to the collections. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Boston metropolitan area boasted a large number of these institutions. Our researcher is attempting to flesh out the history of individual libraries. She reports that she shares the fruits of her labor on Wikipedia, thus making the information available in these rare documents accessible to a much wider audience. This is a unique example of the working relationship between brick-and-mortar institutions like the MHS, the researchers who work in them, and the world of internet-based, crowd-sourced information.

[1] Robert E. Sullivan, Macaulay: The Tragedy of Power (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 409.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 27 January, 2011, 10:00 AM

The Unpredictable New England Weather

In the library this morning, while looking for information in a manuscript collection, I found something else entirely: hope.

Sitting safely ensconced in the warm and flake free library, I watched as just outside the window Boston received yet another solid coating of snow -- adding to the several inches still on the ground from the storm last week. And I began to despair. Is there any hope that warmth and sunshine will return to us? Will the snow ever melt?

As a life long New Englander, deep down I know that the melting will happen. But I also know you cannot predict when the winter weather will end. And even with the Red Sox preparing to depart for spring training, actual spring seems so far away. So after drudging through the over 40 inches of snow we have received so far this year, and seeing the below zero temperatures predicted for the coming weekend, I was having a hard time feeling hopeful about a change in the weather.

Until I sat down with the microfilm edition of the diary of Sarah Gooll Putnam (Sally), that is. I had gone to the diary looking for her observations about Civil War soldiers in the city of Boston, but in browsing the diary's pages I found words of hope, as her entries for January reminded me of the truth in the old saying "If you don't like the weather in New England, wait a few minutes."

On 13 January 1863, twelve year old Sally writes about wrapping herself in layers in order to go outside of the house and of a skating party on Jamaica Pond. Just days later, on 24 January, she writes "It is just like summer now. we [sic] such nice warm weather."

Here is hoping there is nice warm weather on the way for us.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 21 January, 2011, 8:00 AM

Our Youngest Researcher

While the majority of researchers who use our library are adults - college students and above - the MHS often fields research questions from and serves patrons who are in their teens and even younger. Last week, we were visited by a family from California who were visiting relatives in Boston. The youngest daughter, currently in second grade, was working on a class project for Black History Month focusing on the poet Phillis Wheatley (d. 1784). The family came to the library in hopes of viewing an artifact or document in Wheatley's own hand.

After giving the family a short introduction to the research library and our procedures for handling rare books and manuscripts, we arranged for them to view two items from our collection. One item was the first edition of Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, printed in London in 1773 and now held at the MHS as part of the Waterston Library. The second was a letter written by Wheatley to David Wooster on 18 October 1773 about a recent visit to London, where she traveled in hopes of recovering from ill-health and to attend to the publication of her book of poems. We discussed the care and handling of fragile books and manuscripts, and our eight-year-old researcher delighted us by reading the poem "On Being Brought from Africa to America" aloud.

All of the items held at the MHS that relate to Wheatley's life and work have been digitized and made available online as part of the African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts web presentation.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 14 January, 2011, 10:00 AM

Kudos to the Reader Services Staff


Last week the American Historical Society (AHA)  held their annual meeting in Boston.  The meeting spanned January 6 through January 9 and brought an influx of historians, graduate students, and other history professionals to the Back Bay area. 

Many of those in town for AHA, made it a point to stop at the MHS as part of their trip to Boston.  Some even arranged to come to town a few days early so they could fit in a few full-day sessions in the reading room before attending AHA events at the end of the week.  We were happy to see many familiar faces returning to the library, as well as a large number of first time researchers.

Over the course of the week, the library was visited by 72 individual researchers for a total of 119 research visits.  In servicing those researchers the members of the library staff offered 35 new reader orientations for first time researchers, paged over 260 requests for materials from the closed stacks, produced over 300 pages of photocopies, and engaged in countless one-on-one interactions with our researchers.  These numbers exceed what we typically see in a single week during our busy summer months. Kudos for a job well done to our Reader Services staff.  They managed the atypical mid-winter rush with smiles and quick delivery of all library services.  We hope everyone enjoyed the AHA meeting and hope to see all who visited us last week back in the library in the near future. 


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Monday, 10 January, 2011, 10:00 AM

The Fifty Nifty

In January 2010 I posted a piece offering a glimpse of the researcher population that visited the MHS in 2009. This morning I sat down to compose a similar piece for 2010. But then I got distracted. As I worked through our researcher database, tallying up the different places researchers had visited from, I discovered that in June of 2010 we had a multi-day research visit from a resident of West Virginia!

If you did not read the January 2010 post, you may not understand why I find it so exciting that we had a researcher from West Virginia, so I will explain. With the closing of the first decade of the 21st century, West Virginia was the only state not represented in our researcher database. We had recorded visits from researchers from all 49 other states, as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. But up to that point the West Virginians had eluded us. Now with the opening of the second decade of the 21st century we can claim visitors from all fifty states - an interesting piece of trivia and a testament to the widespread appeal of our collections to researchers around the country.

In 2010 alone, the MHS was visited by researchers from 47 states. Alaska, North Dakota, and South Dakota were the only states not represented this year. As usual we also had a number of international visitors. Folks traveled to the MHS library from Australia, Austria, Canada, England, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Russia, Scotland, and Taiwan just to name a few. Our international visitors comprise the smallest percentage of our individual researchers, but they often are in town for extended periods of time, making multiple visits to the library and are better represented in the total research visit category.

I ponder how I missed the West Virginian at the time of his visit. He was a researcher I spoke to - concerning his research, not his home! And I imagine that the staff member working the reception desk must have been one of our newer employees, not aware that I was on the look out for a researcher from West Virginia, thus not alerting me to the fact.

So now I must define identify a new geographical goal. I wonder how many of the Canadian provinces are represented in our database...



comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 5 January, 2011, 8:00 AM

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